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RICHARD E. THOMSON

Institute of Ocean Sciences, Sidney, British Columbia, Canada

ISAAC V. FINE

Institute of Ocean Sciences, Sidney, British Columbia, Canada, and Heat and Mass Transfer Institute,

National Academy of Sciences, Minsk, Belarus

ABSTRACT

Estimates of mixed layer depth are important to a wide variety of oceanic investigations including upper-

ocean productivity, airsea exchange processes, and long-term climate change. In the absence of direct turbulent

dissipation measurements, mixed layer depth is commonly derived from oceanic profile data using threshold,

integral, least squares regression, or other proxy variables. The different methodologies often yield different

values for mixed layer depth. In this paper, a new methodthe split-and-merge (SM) methodis introduced

for determining the depth of the surface mixed layer and associated upper-ocean structure from digital conduc-

tivitytemperaturedepth (CTD) profiles. Two decades of CTD observations for the continental margin of British

Columbia are used to validate the SM method and to examine differences in mixed layer depth estimates for

the various computational techniques. On a profile-by-profile basis, close agreement is found between the SM

and de facto standard threshold methods. However, depth estimates from these two methods can differ significantly

from those obtained using the integral and least squares regression methods. The SM and threshold methods

are found to approximate the true mixed layer depth whereas the integral and regression methods typically

compute the depth of the underlying pycnocline. On a statistical basis, the marginally smaller standard errors

for spatially averaged mixed layer depths for the SM method suggest a slight improvement in depth determination

over threshold methods. This improvement, combined with the added ability of the SM method to delineate

simultaneously ancillary features of the upper ocean (such as the depth and gradient of the permanent pycnocline),

make it a valuable computational tool for characterizing the structure of the upper ocean.

dimead et al. 1963; Sprintall and Roemmich 1999).

Turbulence generated in the ocean by the wind, con- Numerous studies have emphasized the importance

vective cooling, breaking waves, current shear, and other of mixed layer depth (MLD) estimation to upper-ocean

physical processes creates a surface layer characterized processes and variability (cf. Curry and Roy 1989; Rob-

by uniform to near-uniform density, active vertical mix- inson et al. 1993; Wijesekera and Gregg 1996; Kara et

ing, and high dissipation (e.g., Wijesekera and Gregg al. 2000a,b). Much of our physical understanding of

1996). The depth of this mixing layer (Brainerd and MLDs stems from an interest in transient, short-term

Gregg 1995) is ultimately determined by a balance be- (,1 day) fluctuations in sea surface temperature and the

tween the destabilizing effects of mechanical mixing accompanying exchanges of heat, carbon dioxide, and

and the stabilizing effects of surface buoyancy flux. Be- other properties with the overlying atmosphere [cf. the

cause of temporal variations in turbulence intensity and review by Large et al. (1994) and numerical modeling

buoyancy flux, the mixing layer may be embedded in work by Garwood (1977), Martin (1985), and Kantha

a deeper mixed layer of almost identical density to and Clayson (1994)]. In these studies, the mixed layer

the mixing layer and representing the time-integrated referred to as the diurnal mixed layer (DML) by Smyth

response to previous mixing events. Mixed layer depth et al. (1996a,b)is defined as the uppermost layer of

can vary by tens of meters over a diurnal cycle (Price uniform density, high turbulent dissipation, and diurnal

et al. 1986; Denman and Gargett 1988; Schneider and restratification. The commonly used threshold differ-

ence method (cf. Table 1) defines the base of the mixed

layer as the depth at which the potential density, su , in

Corresponding author address: Dr. Richard E. Thomson, Institute

of Ocean Sciences, P.O. Box 6000, 9860 West Saanich Rd., Sidney, the upper layer changes by 0.01 kg m 23 relative to the

BC V8L 4B2, Canada. ocean surface density. Although this definition is prob-

E-mail: thomsonr@pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca ably too narrow for biological applicationsit often

320 JOURNAL OF ATMOSPHERIC AND OCEANIC TECHNOLOGY VOLUME 20

TABLE 1. Selected definitions for mixed layer depth and other upper-ocean features. Here, T is temperature, S is salinity, and su is

potential density. The trapping depth, D T (Price et al. 1986), is analogous to the integral depth scale [Eq. (2.4)].

z

T dz

Peters et al. (1989) Mixed layer depth, MLD Dsu 5 0.01 kg m23 (relative to z 5 0 m)

Schneider and Muller (1990) Mixed layer depth, MLD Dsu 5 0.01 kg m23 (relative to z 5 2.5 m);

Dsu 5 0.03 kg m23 (relative to z 5 2.5 m)

Wijffels et al. (1994) Mixed layer depth, MLD; Dsu 5 0.01 kg m23 (relative to z 5 2.5 m);

top of thermocline, TTC ]su /]z 5 0.01 kg m24

Brainerd and Gregg (1995) Mixed layer depth, MLD Dsu 5 0.0050.5 kg m23;

]su /]z 5 0.00050.05 kg m24

Smyth et al. (1996a,b) Diurnal mixed layer, DML; Dsu 5 0.01 kg m23;

upper-ocean layer, UOL su , 22 kg m23 (top of pycnocline)

Weller and Plueddemann (1996) Mixed layer depth, MLD; DT 5 0.018C (relative to z 5 2.25 m);

isopycnal layer depth, ILD; Dsu 5 0.03 kg m23 (relative to z 5 10 m);

seasonal thermocline depth, STD Dsu 5 0.15 kg m23 (relative to z 5 10 m)

Wijesekera and Gregg (1996) MLD Dsu 5 0.01 kg m23 (relative to z 5 0 m);

MLD1 ]su /]z 5 0.01 kg m24;

MLD2 ]su /]z 5 0.025 kg m24;

MLD3 ]S/]z 5 0.01 psu m21

Skyllingstad et al. (1999) MLD Dsu 5 0.01 kg m23 (relative to z 5 0 m)

neglects the underlying water of near-identical density less reliable because overturning turbulence can result

encompassing high chlorophyll, nutrient, and particle in adiabatic changes of 0.04 kg m 23 over depths of 10

concentrations (e.g., Robinson et al. 1993; Washburn et m (Schneider and Muller 1990).

al. 1998) and ignores the fact that the retreat of tur- This paper has a twofold purpose: 1) to introduce a

bulent mixing to shallower depths proceeds faster than split-and-merge (SM) algorithm for estimating the

the erosion of the stratification at the base . . . (Kara depths of the surface mixed layer and underlying fea-

et al. 2000a)the threshold difference method with the tures from oceanic profile data and 2) to compare results

specific threshold of 0.01 kg m 23 has emerged as the for the different estimators of mixed layer depth pres-

de facto standard by which different methods and stud- ently in use based on several decades of profile data

ies are compared. collected off the west coast of Canada. Formulation of

Methods for estimating the MLD from profile data the SM method originated from our need for a realistic

fall into three broad categories (cf. Schneider and Muller annual cycle in mixed layer depth for ecosystem models

1990; also, Table 1): 1) threshold methods, which find being developed for the west coast of Vancouver Island,

a predefined step in the surface profile (Price et al. 1986; British Columbia (Robinson et al. 1993; Robinson and

Lukas and Lindstrom 1991; Peters et al. 1988) or a

Ware 1994). A report on these models (C. Robinson

critical gradient for the upper layer (Lukas and Lind-

1997, personal communication) concluded that, In

strom 1991); 2) least squares regression methods, which

fit two or more line segments to near-surface profiles general, the upwelling rate and the minimum depth of

(Papadakis 1981, 1985); and 3) integral methods, which the summer mixed layer depth (off southwest Vancouver

calculate a depth scale for the upper layer (Freeland et Island) result in the greatest variability in annual plank-

al. 1997). Due to a lack of salinity data, or because ton or fish production. For our purpose, we found ex-

salinity data tend to be noisier than temperature data, isting techniques for estimating mixed layer depth either

the MLD is sometimes linked to a steplike change in too tightly constrained (e.g., the standard threshold

water temperature, with specified steps in the range method) or too loosely defined (e.g., the integral depth-

0.0180.58C (e.g., Levitus 1982; Weller and Pluedde- scale method). The SM method is shown to be a com-

mann 1996; Kara et al. 2000a,b). Where possible, it is putationally efficient and flexible curve-fitting technique

preferable to use potential density or sigma t (s t ) as that combines accurate estimation of mixed layer depth

estimators for MLD, primarily because it is the density with the versatility to define other upper-ocean features,

structure that directly affects the stability and degree of such as the depth of the top of the thermocline and the

turbulent mixing in the water column. In situ density is gradient of the main pycnocline.

FEBRUARY 2003 THOMSON AND FINE 321

a minimum variance solution to the general mixed

A common approach for estimating the surface mixed layer depth problem; Freeland et al. (1997) used a

layer depth is to specify a threshold slope for the vertical two-segment least squares approach to obtain a time

density gradient (e.g., Price et al. 1986; Lukas and Lind- series of winter mixed layer depth at Ocean Weather

strom 1991) or a threshold for the density offset relative Station P (508N, 1458W) in the northeast Pacific. The

to the ocean surface (e.g., Peters et al. 1989; Schneider two-segment case (Fig. 1c) can be solved analytically

and Muller 1990; Wijffels et al. 1994; Weller and Plued- and is useful for pre-CTD data. The three-segment

demann 1996). The density gradient method is consid- case requires special techniques (e.g., Papadakis

ered a less consistent estimator of MLD than the density 1985) and solutions can be unstable.

difference approach (Schneider and Muller 1990). Be- The two-segment approach seeks a least squares ap-

cause of the eddylike scales of turbulent mechanical proximation to a steplike water density, f (z), such that

mixing, density profiles are often piecewise-linear rather

5ss

than smoothing varying. As a consequence, MLD also u1 za , z , D

can be equated to the uppermost line segment in least f (z) 5 (2.1)

u2 D , z , zb ,

squares approximations to steplike density profiles (Pa-

padakis 1981; Freeland et al. 1997) or to the integral where z a is a near-surface depth; D is the estimated

depth scale for the surface layer (Price et al. 1986; Free- mixed layer depth; z b 5 200500 m is an arbitrary

land et al. 1997). Papadakis (1981, 1985) used a three- depth below the depth of seasonal mixing; and su1 ,

line approximation to estimate the MLD in terms of su2 are constant potential densities for the mixed layer

abrupt changes (break points) in the profiles. and intermediate layer, respectively. Minimizing the

integral

a. Threshold method

In airsea interaction studies (e.g., Wijesekera and

F5 E D

za

[su (z) 2 su1 ] 2 dz

E

Gregg 1996; Smyth et al. 1996a,b), the depth of the zb

surface mixed layer is defined as that depth z at which

1 [su (z) 2 su 2 ] 2 dz (2.2)

the potential density difference D su (z) 5 su (z) 2 su (z 0 ) D

in the upper ocean exceeds a specified threshold value,

commonly 0.01 kg m 23 (Fig. 1a); here z 0 is a reference leads to three equations for su1 , su2 , and D with the

depth (generally in the range z 0 5 0, the ocean surface, solution

E E

to 10 m), and su (z) 5 r u (z) 2 1000 kg m 23 is the density D zb

anomaly for measured potential density, r u . [For the su (z) dz su (z) dz

less-used threshold gradient method, mixed layer depth 1

F(D) 5 su (D) 2 5 0,

za D

is the depth at which the density gradient ]su /]z first 1

2 D 2 za zb 2 D

exceeds 0.01 kg m 24 (cf. Fig. 1b) or other specified

level.] Because the threshold method is comparatively (2.3)

simpledepth estimates can be made by hand without which can be solved numerically. Two-segment ap-

analytical computationsand because the threshold dif- proximations are computationally stable. Increasing the

ference of 0.01 kg m 23 generally yields diurnal depth number of segments or steps can improve the ap-

estimates similar to those from turbulent dissipation proximation to the profile data but typically leads to

measurements, the threshold difference method with the greater complexity. The quality of the least squares fit

threshold 0.01 kg m 23 has become the de facto standard varies from profile to profile depending on the structure

for many mixed layer depth studies. However, in ocean- of the underlying layering.

climate studies, where the focus is on the variability in

MLD averaged over periods of months and longer,

threshold values in excess of 0.125 kg m 23 are more c. Integral depth-scale method

commonly used for monthly mean data (cf. Table 1 in

A simple estimate of the mixed layer depth is the

Kara et al. 2000a).

integral depth scale (Fig. 1d) [also called the trapping

depth by Price et al. (1986)]:

E E

b. Step-function least squares regression method zb zb

E

0 za

the formulation of customized curve-fitting algo- D5 5 , (2.4)

rithms for oceanic profiles, including the use of least

zb

su b 2 su a

squares linear approximations (Papadakis 1981; Free- N (z) dz

2

b

0

land et al. 1997) and form oscillators (Papadakis

1985). Papadakis (1981) used a three-segment linear where, as in the previous section, z a and z b are a near-

322 JOURNAL OF ATMOSPHERIC AND OCEANIC TECHNOLOGY VOLUME 20

FIG. 1. Estimation of mixed layer depth (D) for different methods for the density profile obtained for station LH07 on the west coast of

Vancouver Island on 19 Jul 1997 (see Fig. 3 for station location). (a) Threshold difference method with standard density step D su (z) 5 su (z)

2 su (0) 5 0.01 kg m 23 ; (b) threshold gradient method for ]su /] z 5 0.01 kg m 24 ; (c) two-segment least squares method [cf. Eqs. (2.1)

(2.3)] for z a 5 10 m, z b 5 200 m, constant su1 and su2 , and s (D) 5 (su1 1 su2 )/2; and (d) integral depth scale, D, with z a 5 10 m and z b

5 200 m [Eq. (2.4)]. In (c), each of the paired shaded regions have equal positive (1) and negative (2) areas. In (d), the darkly shaded

rectangle has sides of length D and L s 5 su (z b ) 2 su (z a ), with the area D 3 L of the rectangle equal to the integral I 5 # zb [su (z) 2 sub ]

z

surface depth and an arbitrary reference depth, and sub upper portion of a density profile, the step-function and

5 su (z b ), sua 5 su (z a ) (cf. Freeland et al. 1997). Here, integral-depth approaches require specification of a deep

reference density that is generally much deeper than the

1 2

g dru

1/2

mixed layer depth.

N b (z) 5 2 (2.5)

r 0 dz

is the buoyancy (BruntVaisala) frequency, g is the ac- 3. The split-and-merge algorithm

celeration of gravity, and r 0 is a reference density. Un- Application of the threshold difference method to the

like the threshold methods, which often require only the 4811 CTD profiles collected from Canadian Department

FEBRUARY 2003 THOMSON AND FINE 323

(Fig. 2). The algorithm provides profile decomposition

by defining the locations of the break points separating

the different segments, together with the piecewise ap-

proximation parameters and the error of the approxi-

mation. In general, the fitted segments are disjointed but

can be made to satisfy a continuity requirement by a

retrospective local adjustment of the approximating

curves. We consider the problem of fitting a series of

segments to the profile, f (z), where z is depth and f

represents temperature, salinity, density, fluorescence,

or other profile variable. Given a set of points S 5 {z i ,

f i }, i 5 1, 2, . . . , N, we seek the minimum number n

such that S is divided into n subsets S1 , S 2 , . . . , S n in

which the data points for each subset are approximated

by a polynomial of order at most m 2 1 with an error

norm that is less than some specified quantity . Here,

error norm is the root-mean-square (rms) difference,

maximum difference, or other statistical measure of the

difference between the observed and fitted curves for a

given subset (cf. the appendix). The SM algorithm

merges adjacent fitted segments with similar approxi-

mating coefficients and splits those segments with un-

acceptable error norms. A least squares method, or sim-

ilar approach, is used to fit the curve to the specified

FIG. 2. Illustration of the SM algorithm applied to a case where dataset. Because fitting higher-order polynomials has its

the optimum segmentation can be found in single iterations (after own set of problems, we restrict our discussion to piece-

Pavlidis and Horowitz 1974). The initial fit (dashed line) to the left- wise-linear approximations for which m 5 2. The up-

hand segment of the curve f (z) is split at the break point to form

three separate segments. The two right-hand segments are then permost segment (representing the mixed layer) is as-

merged to form one segment. sumed to have a near-uniform vertical distribution so

that m 5 1 for this segment.

The SM method removes the need for the careful a

of Fisheries and Oceans research vessels working off priori choice of the number of segments n as well as

the west coast of Vancouver Island from 1978 to 2000 the need to specify the initial segmentation. In this way,

yielded instances where the estimated mixed layer depth it is straightforward to obtain segmentation where the

differed markedly from the visually estimated mixed error norm on each segment (or over all segments) does

layer depth (i.e., the depth to the top of the first pyc- not exceed a specified bound. Computational time is of

nocline estimated from density plots). This, and our con- order N. For a specified error norm, we equate the mixed

clusion that depth estimates from the step-function and layer depth D with the uppermost (constant) segment

integral-scale methods were more representative of the of the piecewise-linear fit. (See the appendix for further

main pycnocline depth rather than the surface mixed details on the SM method.)

layer depth, caused us to seek a more reliable method To avoid scaling problems for profile variables, in-

for estimating mixed layer depth. Moreover, because the cluding the need for a different error norm for each

separation of profile data into distinct layers is of ocean- variable, we have normalized both z and f (z) such that

ographic importance, we wanted a method that could

simultaneously approximate other upper-ocean struc- z 2 z min f (z) 2 fmin

z* 5 ; f*(z) 5 , (3.1)

tural features in addition to the mixed layer depth. For z max 2 z min fmax 2 fmin

these applications, we turned to the SM algorithm de-

veloped by Pavlidis and Horowitz (1974) to estimate where subscripts denote the maximum and minimum

the optimal decomposition of plane curves and wave- values of the given variable over the depth range of

forms. interest and 0 # [z*, f*(z)] # 1. Following other au-

thors (see Table 1), we have used a nonzero starting

depth (here, zmin 5 2.5 m), to avoid the effects of prop-

a. Methodology

wash and turbulent flow past the hull of the ship during

The SM algorithm approximates a specified curve station keeping, and zmax 5 150 m to ensure capture of

using piecewise polynomial functions (or other specified the mixed layer depth regardless of season. As with the

functions) in which the break points in the fitted curve threshold method, the SM algorithm requires a prede-

locations of subset boundaries such as changes in slope fined error norm . To determine the sensitivity of MLD

324 JOURNAL OF ATMOSPHERIC AND OCEANIC TECHNOLOGY VOLUME 20

estimates to the specified error norm, we examined es- Table 2a presents a statistical summary of the mean

timates over a wide range of values, from 0.001 to depths and standard deviations for all five methods for

0.03, and found that results for 5 0.01 best corre- all density profiles collected off the west coast of Van-

sponded to our visual MLD estimates. This error couver Island. Results for the threshold difference meth-

norm also coincides closely with accepted threshold val- od (TH) are based on the threshold D su 5 0.01 kg m 23

ues for the established threshold method, giving further and those for the threshold gradient method (GR) on a

support for the SM approach. We note that 5 0.01 gradient D su /Dz 5 0.006 kg m 24 . The specified error

yields a mean MLD of 15.4 m, the same mean MLD norm 5 0.003 for the SM method coincides with the

obtained for the threshold D su 5 0.03 kg m 23 . The threshold difference of 0.01 kg m 23 . As the tabulated

smaller error norm 5 0.003 yields a slightly smaller results indicate, the mean mixed layer depths obtained

mean MLD of 12.4 m, which is similar to the mean using the threshold and SM methods are markedly dif-

MLD obtained from the standard threshold D su 5 ferent from those based on the regression and integral

0.01 kg m 23 . We therefore use the error norm 5 0.003 methods. Mean depths from the threshold and SM meth-

when making direct comparisons of the SM and standard ods (MLD 12 m) are a factor of 5 smaller than those

threshold methods. for the regression and integral methods (MLD 60 m),

Figure 3 provides examples of SM estimates of mixed and most accurately match visual estimates of the uni-

layer depth for CTD profiles collected in July 1997 form-density surface mixed layer. Estimates from the

along ship survey lines B, D, H, and M off the west regression and integral methods are more representative

coast of Vancouver Island (see insert in Fig. 3). In almost of the permanent pycnocline depth than the surface

all cases, the depth estimates for the SM method with mixed layer depth.

5 0.01 are consistent with our visual estimations of Because the mean MLD estimates determined by the

the mixed layer depth. Similar findings are obtained for threshold and SM methods are nearly identical, we use

different lines and different summer survey data. a second-order statistic (the standard error) as a measure

of the relative performance or predictive skill of a

given method. The relatively small standard error

b. Comparison of methods

(5standard deviation divided by (N 2 1), where N

All CTD profiles collected seaward of Vancouver Is- is the number of estimates) in mixed layer depth for the

land from 1978 to 2000 have been used to compare threshold and SM methods (Table 2a) confirms the abil-

results from the SM method with those from conven- ity of these methods to closely track short-period chang-

tional methods. Figure 4a presents an example of a well- es in layer depth. In contrast, the regression and integral

defined mixed layer in which the upper layer has uni- methodswhich provide a weighted depth for the main

form density and is underlaid by a sharp pycnocline. pycnoclineappear to be more affected by large-am-

For this example, the threshold and SM methods give plitude internal tides whose vertical displacements are

nearly identical MLD results over a wide range of typically largest within the pycnocline. The three-layer

threshold and error norm values. We note, however, that (D 3 ) regression method performed better than the two-

for the threshold method the MLD estimate increases layer (D 2 ) regression method, but it too proved unsat-

with increased threshold while for the SM method, the isfactory when the depth profile below the surface mixed

MLD estimate remains unchanged over a wide range of layer became structurally complicated. According to Ta-

norm values (i.e., is less sensitive to the choice of error). ble 2b (which also includes a three-step SM analysis

The underlying pycnocline is closely approximated by using n 5 3), the covariance between the two-step re-

the SM method, demonstrating the methods consider- gression and integral methods is relatively high (r 2 5

able flexibility. 0.71), whereas the covariance between these methods

Figure 4b presents a more complicated case in which and other methods is low (r 2 , 0.15). For the threshold

the upper layer has a weak density gradient. Here, the and SM methods, within-group correlation is highest

ability of the threshold method to estimate the MLD is between the threshold difference and SM methods (r 2

strongly dependent on the threshold value. In contrast, 5 0.90) and lowest between the SM and threshold gra-

the SM algorithm finds an MLD that corresponds closely dient methods (r 2 5 0.76). Thus, based on computed

to the visual estimate. When the upper layer has a sig- means, standard errors, and covariances, we conclude

nificant density gradient (as in Fig. 4c), both the that only the threshold and SM methods provide con-

threshold and SM methods have difficulty estimating a sistently accurate estimates of mixed layer depth.

mixed layer depth. In such cases, there is no well-de- Because the error norm 5 0.003 for the SM method

fined mixed layer and depth estimates invariably depend was selected to provide MLD estimates that were com-

on the specified error values. In particular, if the profile patible with depth estimates obtained using the standard

has a measurable pycnocline in the upper portion of the threshold and threshold gradient methods, the mean

profile, the SM algorithm will find the start depth of the depths for all methods (12.4 m for the SM method and

layer, which in our case has been set to 2.5 m (Fig. 4c). 12.5 m for the threshold difference and threshold gra-

Similar results were found scattered throughout the 21- dient methods) are essentially identical. However, the

yr dataset. variance in the mixed layer depth estimateswhich

FEBRUARY 2003 THOMSON AND FINE 325

FIG. 3. Top portion of 1-m average density (su ) profiles derived from CTD casts collected in Jul 1997 off the west coast of Vancouver

Island (see map). Horizontal bars denote mixed layer depth derived using the SM algorithm. Profiles of su typically range from 22 to 25

kg m 23 . A scale of three su units is shown in the line B profile plots.

326 JOURNAL OF ATMOSPHERIC AND OCEANIC TECHNOLOGY VOLUME 20

FIG. 4. The 1-m average density profile data (solid dots) and line segments fitted using the SM method for line B for 24 Jul 1997 (for

location, see Fig. 3). Depth estimates for the SM method use 5 0.01 and those for the threshold difference method (TH) use both D su 5

0.01 and 0.03 kg m 23 . (a) A well-defined mixed layer, and underlying pycnocline; (b) less well-defined mixed layer and pycnocline; and

(c) a poorly defined (essentially, nonexistent) mixed layer and pycnocline. Time and positional coordinates for each profile are shown. To

avoid prop-wash and ship-wake contamination, the top 2.5 m of each profile has been omitted.

limitations, and other factorsdiffers among the three

methods. Our contention that the SM method outper- The split-and-merge algorithm provides an accurate

forms the two threshold methods is based primarily and flexible new method for estimating the depth of the

on the smaller standard error for the SM method (Table surface mixed layer from oceanic profiles. The method

2a) and on the smaller percentage change in mixed layer eliminates the need for good initialization of the com-

depth caused by the incremental changes in the applied putation and allows for the fit of a variable number

error norm relative to corresponding changes in the of linear segments to the profile data. Along with es-

threshold levels (Fig. 5). Twenty-five estimates were timates of mixed layer depth, the method can be used

used to construct each of the curves in Fig. 5, with to delineate other structural features of the upper ocean

values increasing from 0.004 kg m 23 in steps of 20% such as the gradient of the main pycnocline and the

for the threshold difference method, from 0.0015 kg m 24 depth to the top of the thermocline (TTC).

in steps of 15% for the threshold gradient method, and Our intercomparison among the various depth esti-

from 0.001 in steps of 20% for the SM method. As the mators (the SM method, two threshold-type methods,

thresholds and error norm are increased, estimates of the two- and three-step regression methods, and the in-

the mean mixed layer depth increase (from roughly 10 tegral-scale method) demonstrates that, in the absence

to 20 m) and the standard error decreases. Assuming of turbulent dissipation measurements, only the thresh-

that true mixed layer depth variability due to internal old and SM methods provide accurate estimates of

waves and other factors contributes equally to the mixed layer depth. This is clearly borne out by the mixed

threshold and SM methods, we conclude that the thresh- layer depth estimates obtained for two decades of den-

old methods have greater variance than the SM method sity profiles collected off the west coast of Vancouver

because of higher computational inaccuracy. For the er- Island. According to results in Table 2a, the ;60 m

ror norm ranges considered, the SM method is a slightly mean depth obtained from the two-step regression and

better estimator. integral-scale methods (which is roughly five times the

TABLE 2a. The mean mixed layer depth (MLDsub ) and standard error (std dev divided by N, N 5 number of samples) for different

estimation methods. Subscripts SM, TH, and GR denote the SM, threshold difference, and threshold gradient methods, respectively; Ds is

the integral depth scale, D 2 is the MLD from the two-step function, and D 3 for the three-step function approach. The SM method uses an

error norm e 5 0.003.

Mean (m) (12.51 6 0.32) (12.43 6 0.33) (12.57 6 0.38) (60.4 6 0.6) (60.9 6 0.7) (35.60 6 0.46)

FEBRUARY 2003 THOMSON AND FINE 327

for terminology.)

MLDSM 1 0.90 0.76 0.28 0.09 0.11

MLDTH 1 0.79 0.29 0.10 0.12

MLDGR 1 0.30 0.10 0.13

Ds 1 0.71 0.29

D2 1 0.13

and three times the ;35 m mean depth for the three-

step regression method) is actually an estimate of the

permanent pycnocline depth rather than the depth of the

much shallower surface mixed layer. Similar results are

obtained when the MLD data are analyzed according to

season (Fig. 6). For the SM and threshold methods, the

seasonal-mean MLD is shallower and associated con-

fidence intervals more tightly constrained with depth

for all seasons compared with the integral and regression

methods. The normal MLD confidence distributions for

the regression and integral methods are more reminis-

cent of random processes than natural variability as-

sociated with the spatial and temporal variations in FIG. 5. Relative error (5 std dev in depth estimate divided by

MLD. (N 2 1)) for N estimates calculated as the percentage of the mean

mixed layer depth (summer-only data, west coast of Vancouver Is-

Of the two most accurate methods, the SM method land): GR 5 threshold gradient method; TH 5 threshold difference

yields a marginally lower standard error than the thresh- method; and SM 5 split-and-merge method. Each curve covers a

old difference method. This error arises from compu- broad range of 25 error norm (or threshold) values. The vertical line

tational inaccuracy as well as from temporal and spatial denotes the mean mixed layer depth for the de facto standard threshold

variability in mixed layer depth arising from surface difference, D su 5 0.01 kg m 23 .

heating/cooling, internal wave displacements, and other

physical processes. If we assume that smaller standard 1) find the smallest number of subsets n such that the

error is synonymous with improved computational skill, specified error norm, the statistical measure used to de-

then the SM method slightly outperforms the thresh- fine the difference between the measured and fitted

old difference method in its ability to determine the curves, does not exceed a given bound, or 2) minimize

surface mixed layer depth (the SM and threshold meth- the error norm for a given n. Approach 1 usually in-

ods would yield the same variance in mixed layer depth volves a linear scan of the data points to be approxi-

if it were not for the slightly better computational ac- mated and has a computational time of order N logN or

curacy of the SM method). In effect, the SM method N 2 (Ramer 1972). Approach 2 begins with small incre-

provides an additional tool for estimating mixed layer ments in the locations of the break points (subset

depth from profile data. The greater computational com- boundaries where there are abrupt changes in slope)

plexity of the SM method is compensated for by its and, in the worst case, requires about N iterations. The

slightly greater reliability and its added ability to si- worst case occurs when all the break points are clustered

multaneously determine additional structural features of at the wrong end and have to be moved across the

the upper ocean. entire array of data points (Pavlidis and Horowitz 1974).

For most other methods, initialization is critical, but is

Acknowledgments. We thank Alexander Rabinovich, itself a nontrivial problem. The SM algorithm not only

Evgueni Kulikov, Ken Denman, and several anonymous eliminates the need for good initialization but also

reviewers for their valuable comments on the manu- allows for a variable number of segments. In effect, the

script, and Patricia Kimber for her assistance with the method attacks the problem of approach 1 using the

figures. algorithms for approach 2, with a significant decrease

in computing time.

APPENDIX The task is to determine the minimum number n such

that the set of points S is divided into n subsets S1 , S 2 ,

Steps in the SM Method

. . . , S n , where, for each subset, the data points are ap-

The problem of finding the best piecewise-linear proximated by a linear polynomial of the form f k (z) 5

approximation to the N-point curve S 5 {(z i , f i ), i 5 a k 1 b k z, k 5 1, 2, . . . , n with an error of less than

1, 2, . . . , N} generally proceeds in one of two ways: some prescribed quantity and where the coefficients

328 JOURNAL OF ATMOSPHERIC AND OCEANIC TECHNOLOGY VOLUME 20

FIG. 6. Seasonal mean mixed layer depths (solid dots) and associated percentage confidence intervals based on CTD data for the west

coast of Vancouver Island for the period 19782000. Winter 5 JanFebMar, spring 5 AprMayJune, summer 5 JulyAugSep, and fall

5 OctNovDec. GR 5 threshold gradient method, TH 5 threshold difference method, SM 5 split-and-merge method, Int 5 integral

method, RG2 5 two-step regression, and RG3 5 three-step regression.

a k and b k are found using the least squares method. For segments with large error norms and to merge adjacent

the first subset (here, the mixed layer), the constant b1 segments with similar approximating coefficients (i.e.,

5 0. The choice of the error norm , which defines how split and merge). The fundamental steps in the spit-

well the fitted curves match the observations, depends and-merge method are as follows:

to some extent on the application and is commonly de-

fined in two ways: 1) through the integral square error Step 1 (the split procedure)For an arbitrary initial

k(1) where subset k 5 1, 2, . . . , n r , obtain the polynomial fit

k(1) 5 O ,2

ik for (z i , f i ) S k ,

and check to see if the error norm k for this fit

exceeds the imposed limit, . (Here, we can use n r

5 2 since the program automatically adjusts to find

i

and 2) by the maximum error k(2) where the appropriate number of subsets for the specified

error norm.) If k . , split the kth subset into two

k(2) 5 max( ik ), for (z i , f i ) S k

parts and increment the number of subsets to n r 1

and where ik 5 | f i 2 f k (z i ) | . Sensitivity to noise is 1. The dividing point of the kth subset is determined

an important difference between the k(1) and k(2) norms. according to the following rule: If there are two or

Methods used to find the best piecewise-linear poly- more points where the pointwise error is maximum,

nomial approximation to a curve almost always involve then use as a dividing point the midpoint between

a linear scan of the points to be approximated, possibly a pair of them. Otherwise, divide the segment S k

with repetitions. The process of break-point adjustment in half. Calculate the error norms k on each new

can be accelerated substantially if one is allowed to split interval.

FEBRUARY 2003 THOMSON AND FINE 329

Step 2 (the merge procedure)For k 5 1, 2, . . . , n r , Lukas, R., and E. Lindstrom, 1991: The mixed layer of the western

equatorial Pacific Ocean. J. Geophys. Res., 96, 33433358.

merge segments S k and S k11 provided that this will Martin, P. J., 1985: Simulation of the mixed layer at OWS November

result in a new segment with k # . Then, decrease and Papa with several models. J. Geophys. Res., 90, 903916.

n r by unity to n r 2 1 and calculate the error norm Papadakis, J. E., 1981: Determination of the wind mixed layer by an

on each new interval. extension of Newtons method. Pacific Marine Sci. Rep. 81-9,

Step 3 (the break-point adjustment procedure)For Institute of Ocean Sciences, Sidney, BC, Canada, 32 pp.

, 1985: On a class of form oscillators. Speculations Sci. Technol.,

k 5 1, 2, . . . , n r 2 1, for every adjacent pair of 8, 291303.

subsets (S k and S k11 ), scan the position of the break Pavlidis, T., and S. L. Horowitz, 1974: Segmentation of plan curves.

points to decrease the maximum of the error ( k , IEEE Trans. Comput., C-23, 860870.

k11 ). Peters, H., M. C. Gregg, and J. M. Toole, 1988: On the parameter-

ization of equatorial turbulence. J. Geophys. Res., 93, 1199

Step 4If no changes in the segments have occurred 1218.

in any of steps 13 above, then terminate. Or else , , and , 1989: Meridional variability of turbulence

go to step 1. through the equatorial undercurrent. J. Geophys. Res., 94,

18 00318 009.

The above procedure is an algorithm that terminates Price, J. F., R. A. Weller, and R. Pinkel, 1986: Diurnal cycling: Ob-

after a local minimum n, for the number of segments servations and models of the upper ocean response to diurnal

heating, cooling, and wind mixing. J. Geophys. Res., 91, 8411

is reached and the criterion for the termination is sat- 8427.

isfied. The algorithm computational time is linear in N, Ramer, U., 1972: An iterative procedure for the polygonal approxi-

even for the worst cases. mation of plane curves. J. Comput. Graphics Image Process.,

1, 244256.

Robinson, C. L. K., and D. M. Ware, 1994: Modeling pelagic fish

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